Yang Fudong, An Estranged Paradise, 1997–2002, video, 35-mm film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

Yang Fudong, An Estranged Paradise, 1997–2002, video, 35-mm film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

Yang Fudong

Fudong Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art

Yang Fudong, An Estranged Paradise, 1997–2002, video, 35-mm film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

Yang Fudong is an auteur. His invention of a filmic culture for the Chinese art world—that special milieu in which the intelligentsia and the nouveau riche have met on and off since the early twentieth century—casts everyone who comes in contact with his project, from actors and collaborating artists to collectors and other viewers, in roles on the theatrical stage that defines his approach to the screen.

The most resonant works here took the viewer beyond the diegetic confines of Yang’s cinematic universe and captured the backstage of his productions, where a psychological study of image and character on and off set resides. With About the Unknown Girl—Ma Sise, 2013–14, Yang betrays an obsession with the muse both as a concept and in the flesh. Grasping the awkwardness of changing systems for both art and entertainment as the contemporary art world enters mainstream media culture, the piece follows an obscure actress over several productions: a shoot for a commercial-television drama, another documenting the process of working with Yang, and the resulting photo sessions with the artist. Similarly, The Fifth Night (II) Rehearsal, 2010, a longer seven-channel installation, takes a largely improvisational project (in which actors and designers were tasked with choosing the narrative of a short film) and turns the arena of the cinema into a performance of the making of art.

Yang refers to the viewer as codirector, and the role of the audience is never more evident than in experimental situations like these fragmented and improvisational processes, but in fact he remains in complete control. This is clear in more straightforward productions such as Double Dragon Hills, 2012, a two-channel black-and-white video piece incorporating his own footage from an earlier work, Blue Kylin, 2008. Documenting the work of stone craftsmen, Yang frames labor as performance and the video as artisanal object. An Estranged Paradise, 1997–2002, one of Yang’s earliest 35-mm films, is less involved with a conceptual gesture of detournement than with conventional acting and direction. The artist’s care for filmic texture is clear in his emotional wandering of the city (specifically, Hangzhou), as is a passion for the image that Yang would later sublimate into more stylized forms—patent here is an attention to specific images that later turns into a reference to the category of the image as such.

This chronological survey of four works, an account of Yang’s evolution that managed to keep its distance from his best-known imagery of the Shanghai Bund and the bamboo forest, sought to emphasize the artist’s approach to production over his finished work. The result was a true picture of the artist’s practice, something that is rarely seen in China due to the overwhelming demand for finish and spectacle, or outside China owing to a lingering interest in the sanitized Orientalist imagery that makes up only a part of Yang’s evolution. Organized into three relatively self-contained screening areas and one gallery space hung with wallpaper, a portion of the Ma Sise project, the exhibition asked viewers to begin where the artist is now—with the withdrawal of his muse from the work, which was originally meant to extend over three years—and use this perspective to enter his processes of scriptwriting (Paradise), directing (Rehearsal), and editing (Hills). Taking a resolutely analytical approach, curators Ute Meta Bauer (founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art) and Khim Ong proved precisely why cultural and institutional contexts like this one are necessary, particularly for the supposedly circumscribed and autonomous art systems to which Yang belongs.

Robin Peckham